Even Dankowicz is named 2019 Goldwater Scholar

Even Dankowicz, fly image

photo: Even Dankowicz

Even Dankowicz, a rising senior majoring in Biology, has been named a 2019 Goldwater Scholar. The Goldwater Scholarship is a national scholarship designed to encourage outstanding students in their sophomore and junior year to pursue research careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering.

He has always been particularly interested in animals (including insects), but it was a high school biology teacher that inspired Even to think more seriously about working with insects. “Insects and other arthropods seemed especially worth studying because they are disproportionately diverse and abundant, making up ~95% of the species I found in my yard. Up close, they are also often exceptionally beautiful.” The image above is one of his favorites – it is a wasp-like flower fly from his yard in Illinois.

After his freshman year at Brandeis, Even spent the summer at the Smithsonian revising the taxonomy of a tropical Asian Mydas-fly genus, discovering six new species. Last summer he worked at Harvard on a gene-sequence-based evolutionary tree of a tropical Asian butterfly genus. He has continued to be involved with both of these projects/research groups, and is currently back at the Smithsonian looking at the comparative morphology of fly pupae.

Along with Colleen Hitchcock, Assistant Professor of Ecology, Even worked on local biodiversity-focused citizen science, which has shown him the potential value of this data and motivated him to curate insect observations on iNaturalist and BugGuide, two citizen science websites. Even (with Chris Cohen from East Carolina University) recently contributed an article to Fly Times titled “Diptera and iNaturalist: A case study from Asiloidea”. The article provides a detailed description of iNaturalist. Dankowicz and Cohen used this platform extensively for their studies in Diptera.

In the future, Even says that he thinks he’d like to keep working with insects, “either to understand their evolution or another aspect of their biology.” This spring, Even took an class on evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) with Assistant Professor Maria de Boef Miara, which has been useful in his current project at the Smithsonian. Additionally, he is starting to work on applications for graduate school next year.

Student Research Results in Recent JIB Paper

Images from research paper from Pochapsky and Lovett labsBy Thomas Pochapsky, Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry

We don’t usually consider PineSol, Vick’s VapoRub and Lemon Pledge as food, but it is a good thing that some bacteria can.  The active components of those products are terpenes, small organic molecules that are produced by evergreens to repel insects, promote wound healing and prevent infection.  The bacteria that can use terpenes as food are a critical part of the forest ecosystem:  Without them, the soil would rapidly become saturated with toxic terpenes.  Members of the Pochapsky and Lovett laboratories in Chemistry and Biology are curious about what enzymes are involved in terpene metabolism.  In particular, why would one bacterial strain feast on a particular terpene (camphor, for example) while ignoring others?

The first step in terpene breakdown by bacteria is often the addition of an oxygen atom at a particular place in the terpene molecule, providing a “handle” for subsequent enzymes in the breakdown pathway.  The enzymes that catalyze these oxygenation reactions are called cytochromes P450.  P450 enzymes perform important reactions in humans, including steroid hormone biosynthesis and drug metabolism and activation.  Human P450s are targets for cancer chemotherapy and treatment of fungal infections.  A specific inhibitor of P450 is a component of the AIDS “cocktail” treatment, slowing the breakdown of the other cocktail components so the drugs do not have to be taken as often.

Despite the importance and wide scope of the P450 enzyme family, we don’t know much about how a particular P450 goes about choosing a molecule to work on (the substrate) or where it will put the oxygen (the product).  This is what the Brandeis labs are interested in finding out.  What particular sequence of amino acids gives rise to the substrate/product combination of a given P450? Answers to this question will aid in drug design and bio-engineering projects.

The project employs multiple scientific techniques in order to get at the answers to these questions, including bacterial genome sequencing, messenger RNA transcription, enzyme isolation, activity assays, mass spectrometry and enzyme structure determination.  As complicated as it sounds, though, the project lends itself nicely to undergraduate research:  Three of the authors on this paper are undergraduates, Phillix Esquea ‘18, Hannah Lloyd ’20 and Yihao Zhuang ’18.  Phillix was a Brandeis Science Posse recruit, and is now working with a Wall Street investment bank in NYC.  Yihao is enrolled in graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Pharmacy, and Hannah Lloyd is still at Brandeis, continuing her work on the project.  Even high school students got in on the act:  Teddy Pochapsky and Jeffrey Matthews are both seniors at Malden Catholic High School, and collected soil samples used for isolation of terpene-eating bacterial strains.  (One of the newly isolated bacterial strains is named in their honor, Pseudomonas strain TPJM).

“A new approach to understanding structure-function relationships in cytochromes P450 by targeting terpene metabolism in the wild.” Nathan R.Wong, Xinyue Liu, Hannah Lloyd, Allison M. Colthart, Alexander E. Ferrazzoli, Deani L. Cooper, Yihao Zhuang, Phillix Esquea, Jeffrey Futcher, Theodore M. Pochapsky, Jeffrey M. Matthews, Thomas C. Pochapsky.  Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. Volume 188, November 2018, Pages 96-101.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jinorgbio.2018.08.006.

Encoding taste and place in the hippocampus

The ambience of a good meal can sometimes be as memorable as the taste of the food itself. A new study from Shantanu Jadhav and Donald Katz’s labs, published in the February 18 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, may help explain why. This research identified a subset of neurons in the hippocampus of rats that respond to both places and tastes.

The hippocampus is a brain region that has long been implicated in learning and memory, especially in the spatial domain. Neurons in this area called “place cells” respond to specific locations as animals explore their environments. The hippocampus is also connected to the taste system and active during taste learning. However, little is known about taste processing in the hippocampus. Can place cells help demarcate the locations of food?

To test this hypothesis, Neuroscience PhD student Linnea Herzog, together with staff member Leila May Pascual and Brandeis undergraduates Seneca Scott and Elon Mathieson, recorded from neurons in the hippocampus of rats as the rats explored a chamber. At the same time, different tastes were delivered directly onto the rats’ tongues.

Analyzing how place cells responded to tastes delivered inside or outside of their place field

The researchers found that about 20% of hippocampal neurons responded to tastes, and could discriminate between tastes based on palatability. Of these taste-responsive neurons, place cells only responded to tastes that were consumed within that cell’s preferred location. These results suggest that taste responses are overlaid onto existing mental maps. These place- and taste-responsive cells form a cognitive “taste map” that may help animals remember the locations of food.

Read more:  So close, rats can almost taste it

Undergrad summer research funding, 2019

The Division of Science announces the opening of the Division of Science Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship competition for Brandeis students who will be doing undergraduate research in Summer 2019.  These fellowships are funded by generous alumni donations and by grants. Winners will get $5000 stipends for the summer.

Some funding programs have changed since last year; please see the Div Sci website for details of the programs which fund students across all the sciences. We expect to fund about 30 students this summer.

The due date for applications  is February 27, 2019  at 6:00 PM EST.

Students who will be rising Brandeis sophomores, juniors, or seniors in Summer 2019 (classes of ’20, ’21 and ’22), who in addition are working in a lab in the Division of Science at the time of application, are eligible to apply. A commitment from a Brandeis faculty member to serve as your mentor in Summer 2019 is required.

The Division of Science Summer Program will run from June 3 – Aug 9, 2019. Recipients are expected to be available to do full time laboratory research during that period, and must commit to presenting a poster at the final poster session (SciFest IX) on Aug 8, 2019.

Interested students should apply online (Brandeis login required). Questions that are not answered in the online FAQs may be addressed to Steven Karel <divsci at brandeis.edu>.

Grants for undergraduate research in computational neuroscience

The Division of Science is pleased once again to announce the availability of Traineeships for Undergraduates in Computational Neuroscience through a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Traineeships will commence in summer 2019 and run through the academic year 2019-20.

From former trainee Dahlia Kushinksy’s first-author paper published this month in Journal of Experimental Biology, “In vivo effects of temperature on the heart and pyloric rhythms in the crab, Cancer borealis”

Please apply to the program by February 27, 2019 at 6 pm to be considered.

 

Traineeships in Computational Neuroscience are intended to provide intensive undergraduate training in computational neuroscience for students interested in eventually pursuing graduate research. The traineeships will provide approximately $5000 in stipend to support research in the summer, and $3000 each for fall and spring semesters during the academic year. Current Brandeis sophomores and juniors (classes of ’20, ’21) may apply. To be eligible to compete for this program, you must

  • have a GPA > 3.0 in Div. of Science courses
  • have a commitment from a professor to advise you on a research project related to computational neuroscience
  • have a course work plan to complete requirements for a major in the Division of Science
  • complete some additional requirements
  • intend to apply to grad school in a related field.

Interested students should apply online (Brandeis login required). Questions may be addressed to Steven Karel <divsci at brandeis.edu> or to Prof. Paul Miller.

SciFest VIII wrap-up

SciFest 2018SciFest 2018SciFest 2018SciFest 2018SciFest 18SciFest 18

The Brandeis University Division of Science held its annual undergraduate research poster session SciFest VIII on August 2, 2018, as more than one hundred student researchers presented summer’s (or last year’s) worth of independent research. We had a great audience of grad students and postdocs (many of whom were mentors), faculty, proud parents, friends, and senior administrators.

SciFest VIII by numbers

  • 105 posters
  • 105 student presenters out of approx. 175 summer student researchers
    • 84 Brandeis students
    • 2 international students (from India)
    • 19 visiting domestic students
  • 41 Brandeis faculty advisors from 7 departments
    • Biochemistry (7)
    • Biology (17)
    • Chemistry (5)
    • Computer Science (1)
    • Mathematics (1)
    • Physics (7)
    • Psychology (4)
  • 12 different Brandeis undergraduate majors represented

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